Mental 

Meaningful Ways to Help a Child With Anxiety

October 08, 2020 6 min read

Son on his father's shoulders

At a glance

People sometimes make the mistake of assuming that anxiety only affects adults. However, the truth is that 20 percent of children suffer from some kind of clinical-grade anxiety before they reach adolescence(1). While many children and teens outgrow these feelings of worry and distress, others continue to experience generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) symptoms for years to come. Keep reading to learn more about GAD and how you can help a child struggling with anxiety.

What is generalized anxiety disorder?

Just about everyone feels nervous from time to time. However, if you’re experiencing a high level of chronic anxiety, you may be suffering from a mental health condition called generalized anxiety disorder. People with GAD often have obsessive thoughts and worries that interfere with their ability to work, study and enjoy life(2). Other symptoms of anxiety include:

  • obsessive planning for worst-case scenarios
  • trouble dealing with uncertainty
  • worrying more than a situation merits
  • worrying about the future
  • struggling to make a decision or worrying that you’ve made the wrong decisions
  • inability to stop worrying
  • trouble concentrating
  • restlessness and fatigue(3)

Like adults with GAD, children who struggle with anxiety worry about a wide range of issues and events. While some of the things kids worry about may seem minor, such as getting a question wrong on a test or not getting invited to a birthday party, they still have the potential to cause a great deal of suffering. Moreover, a child with anxiety may worry about bigger issues that children may not typically worry about, such as illness or the loss of a loved one.

Regardless of the source of a child’s anxiety, this mental health condition can have a significant impact on their quality of life. Left untreated, children with GAD may struggle to getenough sleep, eat a healthy diet, make friends or pay attention in school. It’s crucial that parents stay cognizant of their kids’ mental health by looking out for signs of anxiety and other conditions.

Child reading a book for school

How to identify physical and behavioral signs of anxiety in children

Just because children may not have the language to talk about their anxiety doesn’t mean they aren’t experiencing troubling symptoms. As a parent or teacher, you can look out for certain behavioral signs that a child is suffering from anxiety:

  • Children with anxiety may cry or cling to the adults in their life(4).
  • They might act worried or fearful or refrain from participating in certain activities, like going to school or playing with friends.
  • Kids with anxiety may suffer bodily symptoms related to digestion.
  • The physical effects of anxiety in children include upset stomach, vomiting and bowel issues.
  • Other physical signs of anxiety include dry mouth, sweating, racing heart and trouble breathing (5).

It’s important to remember that a child with anxiety isn’t inventing these symptoms. On the contrary, many of these effects are triggered by the chemicals the body releases as part of the “fight or flight” response.

Anxiety looks different from one child to the next. However, parents need to stay alert to any negative symptoms or behaviors in kids that are becoming more frequent or serious(6). While it’s natural to be frustrated when a child is whining or throwing a tantrum, parents should remember that children don’t always know how to handle their feelings. Understanding what causes anxiety disorders is the first step to learning how to help a child with anxiety.

What causes anxiety disorders?

There’s no one answer to what causes anxiety disorders. Still, scientists and mental health professionals believe that the following factors can affect whether or not a child develops anxiety.

Genetics and brain chemistry

Generalized anxiety disorder is more common among children who have family members with the condition(7). Along with inheriting genes that increase their risk of developing anxiety, children may inherit an imbalance of brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters). Having low levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain may lead some individuals to develop anxiety or depression.

Life circumstances

Scary and stressful events in a child’s life can make them more likely to suffer from anxiety. Factors that contribute to anxiety may include death, loss, violence, abuse and illness.

Learned behaviors

Children learn how to deal with stress from their parents and the other adults in their life. If you suffer from untreated anxiety, you might unknowingly be teaching your child to worry, too. The good news is that children can “unlearn” these negative habits and go on to lead satisfying lives, provided that they receive the treatment they need early.

Mom laying on white bed with her daughter having a conversation

Tips to help a child with anxiety

It’s natural to want to help a child with anxiety overcome their fears and stop being afraid. Unfortunately, parents often make the mistake of dismissing children’s worries in an effort to make them feel better. Even if the subject of your child’s anxiety seems silly or outlandish, it’s important to let them know you hear them and understand what they’re feeling(8).

  • Tell your child that you recognize they’re feeling anxious. For example, you might say you know these thoughts and emotions can be upsetting.
  • Stay calm during times when your child is anxious. Doing this helps them see that they don’t need to panic about a situation occurring now or in the future.
  • Strive to be flexible when your child is experiencing anxiety symptoms while attempting to maintain a normal routine for them (9).
  • Look for ways to help children manage their symptoms without resorting to avoidance. Although you may be tempted to support your kids by removing them from situations that cause stress, the truth is that eliminating triggers does little to help a child with anxiety learn to manage their symptoms(10).

Recognizing that anxiety is about the future, parents should aim to help children live in the moment and face their fears. After all, by encouraging your kids to avoid stressful circumstances, you’re telling them that their fear and anxiety are justified.

Anxiety and CBT

Many children experience the occasional bout of anxiety. However, if your child has been seriously anxious for a long time—or if that anxiety is interfering with their ability to go to school or spend time with friends—they might need additional support. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of mental health treatment, is designed to help children and adults become aware of their flawed or negative thought patterns so they can learn how to handle situations in novel ways(11). Studies show that CBT is effective at treating a range of anxiety disorders and related problems, including phobias and panic disorders(12).

During CBT, a therapist will help your child deal with and face their fears. For example, a therapist may recommend exposure and response prevention, in which kids are exposed to anxiety triggers gradually while in a safe and controlled setting(13). Additionally, therapy can teach children coping skills like meditation and breathing exercises and encourage them to view their worry as a “bully in the brain.” The goal is to show kids that negative thoughts aren’t necessarily based in reality.

Medication for children with anxiety

In some cases, therapy may not be enough to help a child with anxiety. Fortunately, a number of prescription medications exist to help alleviate anxiety symptoms in both children and adults. Moreover, a recent study revealed that combining CBT with antidepressants was more effective at treating anxiety in children ages 7 to 17 than using either remedy alone(14).

It’s important to talk to a doctor about whether your child may benefit from anxiety medication. While most patients tolerate antidepressants well, parents should be aware of the most common side effects, such as headaches, nausea, and insomnia.

In summary

There’s no one cause of generalized anxiety disorder. Resulting from a combination of factors, including genetics and life circumstances, anxiety is a serious condition that can have a significant effect on a child’s physical and mental health. If your child is experiencing obsessive thoughts or worries, struggling to make decisions or avoiding activities they once enjoyed, it might be time to talk to a doctor about whether they could be suffering from generalized anxiety disorder.

The good news is that a variety of treatments exist for reducing anxiety symptoms and improving quality of life. The most widely utilized treatment for anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy helps sufferers learn to understand and manage their symptoms. In some cases, therapists may recommend exposure therapy to help kids face feared activities and situations in a controlled environment. Additionally, some children with anxiety may benefit from medications and supplements. Don’t wait to start taking steps to help your child feel better.

April Maguire - Contributing Writer, Physician’s Choice